State of the Black Athlete

Chris Archer: A letter to my parents

The Rays ace looks back with gratitude at his childhood home, where he learned to love himself and to embrace the differences in others

The Undefeated

The setting is a playground in Clayton, North Carolina, in the early 1990s. We’re playing dodgeball during an outdoor recess in grade school, and I’m on a roll. I nail a kid — as well as any first- or second-grader could — to eliminate him from the game, and, as he walks defeated off the field, he looks back at me and shouts the words that rock me to my core: “I don’t care that you beat me, blackie!”

I stopped dead in my tracks, confused and shaken. To this very day, I vividly remember looking skyward while trying to internalize what he had just said. I asked myself, “Is this really how people see me?”

That was the precise moment that I realized I was black. And by the time I had looked down, I realized that color was now a part of my life that I could not avoid.

Sure, being black was always physically part of my life, but, until that grade school day, I had never seen myself as physically different or faced obstacles despite my slightly darker pigmentation (the result of my white biological mother and my black biological father).

I never knew color because the love my de facto parents — who were technically my white biological grandparents and raised me since birth — enveloped me with was all the unconditional love a child could ever need.

From as young an age as I can remember, my parents Ron and Donna always championed the fact that I, and frankly everybody in the world, was different. My mom was especially proactive and would always say, “Chris, what makes you different is what makes you unique, so embrace that.”

Whether my parents were doing it consciously or subconsciously, they were unquestionably preparing me for obstacles that might arise living in North Carolina in that era.

But, at a young age, I honestly never saw any difference between myself and my parents. And as I got older, even as I began to realize my differences, I was never judgmental of other people’s race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And that was largely because of where and how I was raised.

On our cul-de-sac, we had a Mormon family. Between our house and the Mormon family was a lesbian couple. Directly across the street was a gay male couple.

Sure, that’s a lot of differences on the surface. Yet we didn’t see it that way.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

We hosted group dinners together, went to church together and had family gatherings together. And while I, the only black kid in the neighborhood, didn’t grow up on a street that was racially diverse, I did understand early in life that we are all just people despite whatever our differences may be.

As I grew older and entered my adolescent years, I was fortunate to live a life where I experienced very little racial strife and tension, which can be especially rare growing up in the South.

That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in my adolescent life, though.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent a lot of time with this girl at school and around town. We texted back and forth for a few months, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask her if I could come over to her house to kick it.

The girl was white, and I’ll never forget her response: “My dad said that I’m not allowed to hang out with N-words, or have a boyfriend that is a N-word.”

The way she said it was a little too casual, just like when the grade school dodgeball victim called me “blackie.” And just like that little boy, this girl was unfortunate to have grown up in an environment where someone else shaped her views about race and culture.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

Fortunately, I grew up in an “embrace all” environment that my parents provided me, and participation in youth sports afforded me the opportunity to make friends of all different races. Youth sports also exposed me to a particularly special high school coach, Ron Walker. Ron, who is black, welcomed me and my parents into his family, and their support allowed me to connect with a part of my black heritage and culture that was needed in my life.

You may be asking yourself, “But why was this connection needed?”

The answer:

Even to this day, regardless how welcoming I am of all people, certain people in this world will also see me in a certain light — a biracial man. That’s just a sad reality.

But it’s a reality that doesn’t change my mindset toward people who look at me that way. I embrace being biracial. I enjoy interacting with people of all different beliefs. And I most certainly accept people of different beliefs for who they are — not what they are.

I hold no grudge toward that kid on the grade school playground. And I don’t fault my sophomore year crush for the comment that ended our relationship. They didn’t know what they were saying carried so much hate. They unfortunately grew accustomed to those beliefs in the environment they were raised in, and they were simply regurgitating what their household environment passed on to them.

I just wish they could have grown up in a house and environment like mine. A house where my parents endlessly nurtured me, where they showered me with love, and where, despite my “differences,” showed me and my surrounding environment total acceptance regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And for that, I have three words for my parents:

I love you.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!